Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

Ireland's Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

by Mark Williams

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A sweeping history of Ireland's native gods, from Iron Age cult and medieval saga to the Celtic Revival and contemporary fiction

Ireland's Immortals tells the story of one of the world’s great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation’s languages, the book describes how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era—and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams’s comprehensive history traces how these gods—known as the Túatha Dé Danann—have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today’s young-adult fiction.

We meet the heroic Lug; the Morrígan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god Manannán mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves. Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to reimagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland’s divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea—and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland.

An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland’s Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world’s imagination for so long.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this weighty tome, Williams, a tutor in English at Lincoln College, University of Oxford, seeks to pull together the disparate strands of myth and lore over the course of centuries to provide a conclusive history of the Irish gods. “This book is the story of a nation’s fantasy, and of the crossing-places where imagination meets belief... from the early Middle Ages through the present,” he writes in his preface. In tackling such a broad and complicated topic, he confronts the odd dichotomies and paradoxes present in the body of Irish lore, in which humans and gods, mortals and immortals, and the natural and supernatural are almost interchangeable. He also traces the intermingling of pagan and Christian legends to see how they shaped each other. As he examines different narrative cycles, he shows how they’ve risen and fallen in popularity, flirting with obscurity before finding new life in popular culture. It’s a dense, academic affair, slow and studious, and more than a little daunting for its thoroughness. Those looking for lively adventures or entry-level stories may be disappointed; scholars and researchers will leap to add this to their collections. (Oct.)

From the Publisher

"Far too much writing on Irish mythology is disturbingly superficial, and that makes a book as comprehensive and learned as this one a welcome addition."—-Juliette Wood, Folklore


"Williams has written what will be the go-to book on the gods of Ireland for the foreseeable future. At home with Old and Middle Irish texts, Williams traces the Irish gods from their first appearance in eighth-century narratives to their appropriation in contemporary music, visual arts, literature, and neo-paganism."

Library Journal

★ 11/01/2016
From the early Middle Ages to modern times, Williams (Simon & June Li Fellow in the Humanities, Univ. of Oxford; Fiery Shapes: Celestial Portents and Astrology in Ireland and Wales 700–1700) guides readers through an examination of the history and development of Irish gods and their myths. Discussions include topics such as how stories and characteristics of the pre-Christian gods changed when Christianity was introduced (e.g., the pagan god Lugus's transformation into the literary Lug), the effects of Irish gods and mythology on history and culture (e.g., the emergence of "Celtology"/Celtic studies), the Irish gods in literature and art (e.g., the work of W.B. Yeats, George Russell, and impact of the Literary Revival), and more. Examinations of ancient and modern Irish sagas, poems, and other narratives such as "The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir" and Standish James O'Grady's two-volume History of Ireland appropriately frame these discussions. Includes a glossary and pronunciation guide. VERDICT Scholarly, complete, and engaging, this volume will complement existing works on the topic. Strongly recommended for students, scholars, and fans of Irish mythology and literature.—Jennifer Harris, Southern New Hampshire Univ. Lib., Manchester

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400883325
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 10/17/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 608
File size: 6 MB

Read an Excerpt

Ireland's Immortals

A History of the Gods of Irish Myth

By Mark Williams


Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8332-5




    Every layer they strip
    Seems camped on before.
    The bogholes might be Atlantic seepage.
    The wet centre is bottomless.


IN MANY MYTHOLOGIES the gods issue forth from primordial night; in Ireland, the divinities emerge not from the dark abyss of creation myth, but from an enigmatic and patchy archaeological record.

The earliest written evidence for native gods comes from early Christian Ireland, not from the pagan period; this is a pivotal fact which must be emphasized. Christianity did not entirely consign the pagan gods to the scrapheap, but the consequences of its arrival were dramatic and affected Irish society on every level. Pagan cult and ritual were discontinued, and a process was set in motion that eventually saw a small number of former deities reincarnated as literary characters. Christianity — intrinsically a religion of the book — enabled the widespread writing of texts in the Roman alphabet. Some of these have been transmitted to the present, with the paradoxical upshot that we owe our ability to say anything at all about the 'personalities' of Ireland's pre-Christian gods to the island's conversion.

This chapter focuses on the period from the fifth century down to the late seventh, but tighter historical brackets can be put around the conversion process itself. The Christian religion was present in Ireland from at least the early 400s, certainly among British slaves and their descendants, though there may well also have been communities of Irish converts in the areas of the island that had been most exposed to influence from Roman Britain. It is notoriously difficult to pinpoint when a population group can be decisively said to have exchanged one religion for another, but during the 500s the church hierarchy was legally established as a privileged order, and monasticism, Latin education, and ecclesiastical learning thrived. By the year 600, therefore, we can speak of Irish society as already converted on the level of hierarchy and institution. The public worship of pagan gods by high-status individuals had probably come to an end in the mid to late 500s, but occasional, increasingly marginalized manifestations of non-Christian religion seem to have continued until the turn of the eighth century. It is not until that point that druids — the magico-religious specialists of Irish paganism — finally cease to appear in legal texts as a going concern and can be taken to have disappeared from Irish society. It is also worth remembering that all such markers are public and collective: the realm of personal conviction — how people behaved in their homes and felt in their hearts — is irrecoverably lost to us.

Around the year 700 — roughly three hundred years after the conversion process began — pagan divinities began to appear in a vibrant literature written in Old Irish. Two questions immediately present themselves. Why should a Christian people be interested in pagan gods at all? And what was the relationship between the gods whom the pagan Irish had once venerated and the literary divinities who thronged the writings of their Christian descendants?


It is traditional in handbooks of mythology to begin with a family portrait of the divinities, detailing their relationships, powers, and attributes. This cannot be done for the gods of Ireland. It could be argued — albeit rather austerely — that we should not speak of Irish pre-Christian deities at all, because everything we know about them comes down to us in writings composed after the island's conversion and may therefore have been filtered through a Christian lens. All surviving mythological material from Ireland is the product of a pious and intellectually sophisticated Christian culture, and it is important to hold in mind that from their earliest appearances in the textual record the Irish gods are divorced from cult.

Can we retrieve any information from non-textual sources about the nature of the divinities worshipped by the pagan Irish? The attempt is possible only with caution and if we confine ourselves to general principles. Two tools come to hand: the first is archaeology, and the second is inference drawn from the related societies of Celtic Gaul and Britain.

By its nature, archaeological evidence is of limited value in reconstructing belief systems or mythological narratives, but it does seem that at least some Irish population groups set up anthropomorphic wooden or stone images that may be of gods. One found in the bog of Ralaghan, Co. Cavan, is roughly a metre long and made from a single round trunk of yew: it has a gouged hole in the genital area, which may once have held a carved phallus (Fig. 1.1). Though its sunken eye hollows anticipate the uncanny stare associated with the (characteristically Iron Age) La Tène decorative style, it actually dates to the late Bronze Age, at the beginning of the first millennium BC. Many scholars would place this before the arrival of any form of Celtic speech in Ireland, so there is no guarantee of cultural continuity with the religious practices of over a millennium later. That said, similar sculptures have turned up sporadically in Britain in a more explicitly Iron Age context, suggesting that they may once have been widespread: we cannot tell.

Similar problems of interpretation attend the stone sculpture known as the 'Tandragee Idol', also dated to c. 1000 BC. Helmeted and grasping his left arm — in pain or in salute? — the figure could represent a human warrior or a native deity (Fig. 1.2). In an instance of the seductive temptation to read archaeological objects in the light of much later literature — and thus to find a politically soothing continuity in the Irish past — it has been suggested that the Tandragee sculpture depicts Núadu Argatlám ('of the Silver Hand/Forearm'), a literary character who loses his arm in battle and has it temporarily replaced by one made of metal. Ellen Ettlinger, who suggested the identification in 1961, felt convinced that the sculptor had depicted the left arm as 'clearly artificial' — but distinctions of this kind surely lie in the eye of the beholder. Additionally, as the story of Núadu's silver prosthesis is first attested in a saga composed nearly two millennia after the Tandragee sculpture was created, any link must be considered at best only a possibility; the figure remains inscrutable.

There are also hints that rivers, bogs, and pools were important in the religious beliefs of the pagan Irish, though Iron Age deposits of artifacts are strikingly rarer in Ireland than in parts of Britain, for unknown reasons: an instance of the enigmatic quality of Irish Iron Age archaeology in general. Ireland can nonetheless boast one of the most spectacular of these, the Broighter Hoard, which was discovered in 1896 buried in heavy agricultural land near to Lough Foyle in County Derry. The original deposition was made close to the water's eastern edge, but the shore of the lake has shifted over the millennia. It includes not only the most splendid torc ever uncovered in Ireland, but also a miniature golden boat, complete with tiny oars. The items seem to have been fashioned, and perhaps deposited as well, in the first century BC. Depositions such as this suggest a belief at the time they were made in supernatural beings associated with water, and it should be emphasized that this is all that can be extracted with confidence. In another instance of looking to later literature to explain archaeology, scholars have long speculated that the hoard was a ritual offering to the sea-god Manannán, because Old Irish texts associate Lough Foyle with stories of an inundation and an encounter between the god and a band of human mariners. All this is not to say that connections drawn between medieval written texts and pre-Christian archaeology are of necessity misguided, simply that they must be considered tentative and that it is dismayingly easy to build castles in the air.

Because the archaeological evidence emerges as open to several interpretations we can use it to outline only the most important aspects of how the pre-Christian Irish regarded their divinities. Briefly, there were probably a great number of these, related to specific places, peoples, and to the natural world. They were considered worthy of reverence, and perhaps (as seen) of artistic depiction; some of them seem to have had associations with water — though whether they were supposed to dwell in, under, or through it is unclear. They could be propitiated, and must have been imagined as having uses for the gifts, including animal sacrifice, which human beings offered up to them. Some of this picture can be rounded out by comparison with Gaul and Britain, but one final caveat about the archaeological record should be considered before we move on: it points to the centuries immediately before the conversion began as a period of economic contraction, agricultural decline, and (very likely) some degree of political upheaval. Therefore it is possible that late–Iron Age religious values and beliefs reflected such turbulence, so that far from descending changelessly from an immemorial Celtic past, they may have been in considerable flux.

With the turn from Irish archaeology to Celtic Gaul and Britain, written data enters the picture, largely in the form of inscriptions, though there are also important Roman descriptions of Gaulish religious customs. Once again, useful parallels between the religious cultures of these societies and that of Ireland can only be drawn if we stick to broad outlines. Three features emerge as likely to have been shared. The first is that watercourses seem regularly to have been venerated as divinities — usually goddesses, though there are a few river-gods. The second is a welter of local variety, with an enormously large number of named deities attested, though most of these clearly fell into a limited number of overlapping functional types: warrior, trader, hunter, and healer, for instance. Thirdly, neither Gaul nor Britain provide us with evidence for a native pantheon in the Graeco-Roman sense, and this is clearly related to the localism just mentioned. This last presents a puzzle, for it has to be acknowledged that Old Irish literature — as we shall see — does in fact provide a loose family of supernatural beings looking something like a pantheon. A deity named the Dagda, literally meaning the 'Good God', forms the centre of gravity within this structure, like the Roman Jupiter; like Jupiter, he has several children and is conspicuously highly sexed.

There are a number of ways to resolve this discrepancy. On the one hand, pre-Christian Ireland might have independently developed a pantheon while the Gauls and the Britons did not, though this seems unlikely. Ireland was, and remained after its conversion, a decentralized, rural, and politically fragmented society with a thinly spread population of limited mobility — a situation unlikely to foster the development of a national family of gods.

More persuasive is the second possibility that those members of society who could move about thought in terms of a core pantheon. This would mean those who maintained themselves via a professional skill (known as áes dána, the 'people of art/talent'), and perhaps especially druids as the island's religious elite. It may be that this is what we find reflected at some removes in the later literature, which does have a striking emphasis on figures associated with skill. People tied to the land would probably have focused more on local divinities of fertility. It is possible that a similar situation obtained in Gaul, and this would explain the sharp contrast between Julius Caesar's famous description of a micro-pantheon of five Gaulish gods — for whom he uses the Roman names Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Apollo, and Minerva — and the clear epigraphic evidence that Gaulish deities numbered in the hundreds. We know that Caesar spoke with a druid, and that he had a pressing need to understand the attitudes of the powerful in Gaulish society: his account of the gods of the Gauls may reflect solely the beliefs of the learned, mobile elite.

A third possibility is that the whole concept of a family of gods under a father-god might have been adopted by the Irish as a result of contact with Roman culture, though this might have happened at two possible stages: pre-conversion and post-conversion. Pre-Christian Ireland was exposed to significant influence from Roman Britain, and the idea of a pantheon might have been adopted in imitation of the culture of the neighbouring island, as was the custom of commemorating the dead with inscriptions on stone. Alternatively the concept of a pantheon might never have been part of Irish paganism at any stage. Rather, it could have been imported after the island became Christian, as the learned classes of Irish society developed familiarity with Latin literature — not least the poet Virgil's baroquely mythological epic, the Aeneid. All these options are possible, but at the present state of our knowledge it is hard to gauge which is most likely.


We know of one individual who encountered pagan Ireland first-hand: St Patrick. Exasperatingly, Patrick tells us next to nothing in his surviving writings about the non-Christian religious beliefs and practices to which he must have been exposed.

Much about Patrick's life and mission has been clarified by two generations of brilliant historians, though many obscurities remain. What he was famously not, however, was an Irishman. He tells us that he was a Briton, born into priestly family which belonged to the local nobility of a Romano-British civitas. Abducted as a teenager and enslaved in the far west of Ireland, he managed after six years to escape. Later, having been ordained and then consecrated as a bishop, he felt impelled by a vision to return to evangelize the island where he had been in bondage and to succour its beleaguered Christians, though we know he was neither the island's first missionary, nor even its first bishop. The scholarly consensus is that Patrick's mission should be dated to the fifth century, and probably to its second half, though there is a range of opinions on almost every detail of where, when, how, and why.

Patrick is an indispensable source for the 'changing times' of the conversion period, which began with a pagan cult in full swing. British slaves, right at the bottom of society, probably made up the majority of Christians in Ireland — Patrick himself began as one such — though there may already have been settled communities of Irish converts in the 'Greater Leinster', the eastern and south-eastern region of Ireland, the area which had been most exposed to the culture of Roman Britain. Of Patrick's two surviving writings, the more important for our purposes is the Confession, which amounts to a powerful — and powerfully difficult — spiritual autobiography, written in Latin. Ireland's social topography, it reveals, consisted of a patchwork of different kingdoms of variably dense population. There were around a hundred of these túatha (singular túath). Patrick notes the presence among the Irish of idola et inmunda, 'idols and unclean things'. Jacqueline Borsje has noted that while the basic meaning of idolum in Latin is 'image', extended definitions include 'apparition' and the like; because a category of supernatural entity appears in the later literature under the native label scál ('phantom', 'spectre'), she has suggested that Patrick's word idola refers to this class of being. Ingenious as this is, his meaning may have been more prosaic. Inmunda in particular suggests objects, and it is tempting to imagine Patrick's 'idols and unclean things' as carved figures of the Ralaghan type, together with the ritual trappings of their cult.


Excerpted from Ireland's Immortals by Mark Williams. Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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